One for all: Korean art auctioneers ramp up sales in Hong Kong

Growing international interest in monochrome painting style lies behind auction houses’ decision to add more events in city

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 October, 2015, 4:40pm

The main art auction houses normally have two big sales sessions in Hong Kong each year – one in spring and one in the autumn – but South Korean auctioneers are seeing such strong demand from their clients that they have started holding three to four auctions a year in the city.

The companies are relatively small players on a global scale. Seoul Auction, the country’s biggest, earned around US$21 million in revenue for the 2014 financial year, a far cry from that of Sotheby’s US – US$938 million.

Still, being small means they are quick on their feet. Both Seoul Auction and its closest domestic rival, K Auction, are ramping up their activities in Hong Kong after successful sales in October that were largely due to the popularity of Korean monochrome paintings. These are minimalist, abstract works that emerged in the 1950s from a group of post-war artists such as Kim Whan-ki, Lee U-fan, Chung Sang-hwa and Park Seo-bo. Since 2014, a number of major galleries have held exhibitions of the work of these artists, and their inclusion in the collections of major American museums as well as that of M+ in Hong Kong, have sent prices sky-high. Just five years ago, Christie’s sold a work by Chung Sang-hwa in New York for US$2,750. Today, his works can fetch up to US$1 million.

Seoul Auction sold HK$179.8 million worth of art, including buyers’ premiums, at its October 5 Hong Kong auction, the most it had sold outside South Korea since its first Hong Kong sale in 2008. Out of 67 lots, 60 were sold. K Auction closed its October 4 auction in Hong Kong with sales of HK$56.3 million, also including buyers’ premiums. Out of 69 lots, 64 were sold.

Their sell-through rate of 90-93 per cent, by lots, is very high compared with the competition. For example, Sotheby’s managed to sell around 86 per cent of the lots at its main evening sale for modern and contemporary Asian art on October 4 in Hong Kong. Overall, the auction giant only achieved a sell-through rate of 76 per cent from its October sales in Hong Kong.

Korean auction houses are doing well because of the growing interest in Dansaekhwa (in English, monochrome), says Bong Lee, chief consultant for Seoul Auction Hong Kong. The market for monochrome artists was originally driven by domestic demand but after acquisitions by prominent museums and collectors abroad, the number of international buyers has gone up substantially in recent years, he says.

He also points out that Korean auction houses have better access to domestic collectors who value discretion, and that helps them win consignments of more, and better, monochrome works compared with international auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Jackline Jiae Byun, K Auction’s specialist in modern and contemporary art, says she’s also noticed more interest from overseas collectors in monochrome paintings since last spring. This October, K Auction sold works by Chung Sang-hwa and Park Seo-bo to non-Koreans, she adds.

Both companies are returning to Hong Kong next month for sales that coincide with Christie’s autumn sales – K Auction on November 28 and Seoul Auction on November 29.